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Is the big bang cosmology in conflict with Judeo-Christian theology?

David H. Bailey
1 Jan 2017 (c) 2017

The "big bang" is a name given to the origin event of our universe, which scientists now date at roughly 13.7 billion years ago. In the early minutes of the universe, as currently understood by scientists, all fundamental particles of matter formed, and the four fundamental forces (electromagnetism, weak nuclear force, strong nuclear force, gravitation) assumed their current forms. For additional details on the scientific details of the big bang cosmology theory, see Big bang.

The big bang cosmology has attracted a great deal of attention from theologians, due to its resemblance of the ex nihilo (from nothing) creation of the universe, and thus many theologians have asserted that God is the agent who set the universe into existence at the big bang. For instance, Robert Jastrow wrote [Jastrow1978, pg. 116]

At this moment [as a result of big bang cosmology] it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.

However, there are some significant difficulties with such interpretations. To begin with, the big bang cosmology offers no comfort at all to those preferring the traditional creationist worldview, since it describes the origin of the universe some 13.7 billion years ago, far older than the creationist timeline. In addition, a theological identification of the big bang with God's creation is something of a thinking stopper -- it leaves numerous big questions unanswered:

Recently William Lane Craig, a Catholic theologian at Catholic University of Louvain, and Quentin Smith, a professor philosophy at Western Michigan University, engaged in a published debate on the theological implications of big bang cosmology [Craig1993]. Craig started out by arguing that the finite past implicit in the big bang was consistent with the notion of God creating the universe. Smith countered at length, arguing that big bang is inconsistent with Judeo-Christian theism, and that, in particular, the big bang has no "cause." Both then addressed some more recent developments, such as Stephen Hawking's "no boundary" version of big bang cosmology. This debate turned on many very technical details, and, in the end, both parties agreed to disagree.

Similarly, Canadian-American physicist Lawrence Krauss, in his 2012 book A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing [Krauss2012], provocatively argues that modern physical theories suggest that indeed, the universe could have arisen from a random quantum fluctuation, thus removing any need to hypothesize a supernatural creator. But other researchers are not so sure. Noted physicist Alexander Vilenkin argues that all current theories still demand a beginning [Grossman2012]:

Such debates illustrate the difficulty in trying to wed religion with some particular scientific theory. And what if the theory changes? This is underscored by the recent rise of the "multiverse" cosmology (see Multiverse). Those same theologians who were so fond of the big bang cosmology now have to consider what their theology means in the context of the multiverse. As philosopher John Haught (a Roman Catholic) notes [Haught1995, pg. 109]:

And although it may seem for the moment that big bang physics is smoothing over some of the friction between science and religion, we know that science will continue to change. And if the big bang theory is eventually discarded as premature or inaccurate, then on what ground will those theologians stand who now see it as a vindication of theism?

And while such discussions may be engaging and intriguing, one can ask whether they relate in any substantive way with the sort of religion that most religious believers experience. Haught warns of these difficulties in the following terms [Haught1995, pg. 131]:

For even if scientists concluded that some intelligent being had tinkered with the initial conditions and cosmological constants, pointing them in the direction of life and mind, this "being" would still be an abstraction, and not the living God of religion. It would be a great empty plugger of gaps, and not the personal God of Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad. The [strong anthropic principle] is no more capable of confirming or deepening our religious life than are the old arguments of God's existence. The realms of science and religion are radically distinct. Once again, then, in the interest of maintaining the integrity of both religion and science, we refuse to derive any theological consequences or religious comfort from this spuriously popular "scientific" theory.

This is discussed in greater detail at Harmony.


[See Bibliography].